Men avoid 'green behaviors' to preserve their macho image

Macho man
CC BY 2.0 Surian Soosay

Manliness is killing the planet. Sort of. But new research suggests that masculine branding of eco-friendly products could help change that.

Are you the type of guy who goes out of his way to convince others of your manly nature? Do you feel the need to talk down about the neighbor's hybrid car or solar panels, or to 'roll coal" all over a Prius in your giant diesel truck, or to disparage those who go to great lengths to recycle and shop 'green' products, because you don't want your own actions to be seen as overly feminine? If so, your resistance to adopting more sustainable choices could simply be a function of your own sense of what manliness or masculinity means.

Evidently, masculinity is a fragile beast, and many men are much more attached to maintaining a manly identity than women are to a feminine identity, which leads men to not want to be seen as green or eco-friendly, which are often associated with the feminine. Of course, this isn't new to those of us who have spent any amount of time learning about, writing about, or working toward sustainable solutions, but when it's backed up by findings from studies that examine the issue from a consumer research angle, this difference in perception could be a key to unlocking the market potential of a wide array of environmentally friendly products and services, simply by rebranding them with a so-called masculine approach.

A study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Aaron Brough, an assistant professor of marketing at Utah State University, and James E.B. Wilkie, an assistant professor of business at the University of Notre Dame, as well as a few co-authors, suggests that more men could be persuaded to make green choices, if only the marketing and branding messages of eco-friendly products were crafted in a way that affirms mens' masculinity, and used fonts, colors, and turns of phrase that are traditionally associated with masculinity. The research, titled "Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption," consisted of seven studies that looked at how small changes in marketing and branding can affect how men view those products, and the findings point to a real need for sustainable businesses to adopt a different approach when targeting men.

"Previous research shows that men tend to be more concerned about maintaining a masculine identity than women are with their feminine identity. We therefore thought that men might be more open to environmental products if we made them feel secure in their masculinity, so they are less threatened by adopting a green product." - James E.B. Wilkie

According to the paper's abstract, the authors found that "the concepts of greenness and femininity are cognitively linked" and that "consumers who engage in green behaviors are stereotyped by others as more feminine and even perceive themselves as more feminine." The studies used two approaches to addressing this "gender gap" in eco-friendly products, one of which was the idea of "affirming a man's masculinity" before introducing him to green products, and the other was to use more overtly masculine brand elements (logo, font, colors, images) in those green products, in order to create a more 'manly' perception of the product.

"We documented how both men and women find green products and actions to be feminine. We thought that if you reframe environmental products to be more masculine, men would be more likely to adopt them. Instead of using traditional marketing messages about green products (which are typically perceived as feminine), we changed the messages to be more masculine in nature by changing the phrasing, colors, etc. When we did that, we found that men were more willing to 'go green.'" - Wilkie

One example is the willingness of men in the study to donate to a green charity which had a more masculine branding approach, using a fictional charity by the name of "Wilderness Rangers" and an image of a wolf howling at the moon, as opposed to a more traditional green marketing approach with the name of "Friends of Nature" and an logo that featured a tree. In another example, a study undertaken at a BMW dealership in China, a known eco-friendly car model was presented to shoppers under the name "Protection" (said to be a masculine term in China), which was shown to increase men's interest in the model, even as all other descriptions of the car stayed the same.

"Men’s willingness to engage in green behaviors can be influenced by threatening or affirming their masculinity, as well as by using masculine rather than conventional green branding. Together, these findings bridge literatures on identity and environmental sustainability and introduce the notion that due to the green-feminine stereotype, gender identity maintenance can influence men’s likelihood of adopting green behaviors."

Shifting to a more masculine branding approach may not be the magic bullet of green marketing, however, as women seemed to prefer the traditional eco-friendly angle of green brands, and could be put off by a more macho approach. The key takeaway here, as Jeremy Deaton, writing for Nexus Media, puts it, is that "identity is everything," and that "Human beings act in ways that affirm their identity."

"Women may perform green behaviors to affirm their own gender identity, just as men avoid green behaviors to affirm theirs. Masculine branding could, in some cases, backfire with women." - Deaton

The bottom line, it would seem, is that while marketers have known for decades that selling products to men and women requires two different approaches, this seems to have slipped the minds of many who work for so-called green businesses, and by integrating a more masculine approach to selling electric cars, solar panels, energy efficient appliances, and eco-friendly products of all strips, companies (and advocacy organizations) could enable a much wider adoption of these green products.

Tags: Consumerism

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